INDIANAPOLIS -- Dr. Brian Cole beamed like a proud papa as he sat on a training table in the back of the Chicago Bulls locker room late Saturday night.
Cole, the Bulls' team physician and the man who performed the surgery on Derrick Rose after the superstar point guard tore the ACL in his left knee on April 28, 2012, wore the look of both happiness and relief as he walked out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. His expression summed up how most within the organization felt after seeing Rose play in a live game for the first time in more than 17 months.
As happy as they were to see Rose on the floor again, what made them even happier was the fact that he looked like his old self.
"It's kind of a relief," Rose said of getting the first game under his belt. "I can continue to go on with my training and know that I got one game out of the way, and we're just trying to take it one game at a time, one practice at a time, and just try to stay focused on the No. 1 goal this year, and that's to contend for a championship."
All the talk about contending for a championship from Rose and his teammates would have been rendered useless if Rose looked like a shell of his former self on Saturday. The best part for the Bulls is that, despite the rust, Rose showed that he was the same player he had always been. He showed no fear going to the rim, he led his teammates on the floor and he even got upset when coach Tom Thibodeau tried to take him out of the game in the third quarter.
The fact that Rose looked like the same player didn't surprise the people who have been watching him in practice over the past few months. It just served as more validation that, after a long road back to the court, the former MVP is ready to do all the same things he had done before.
"We've been seeing that in camp," Thibodeau said of Rose's aggressive play. "He's hard to guard when he's coming at you like that. He's going to get you back on your heels. He's going to force the defense to collapse, and it makes the game easy. So it was good to see him aggressive as he was, but that's what he's been doing. I think he's comfortable. I think he feels good about how he feels, and it's just the start."
Rose agrees. He said he's not thinking about his knee on the floor anymore. He said that it was a collision with training camp invitee Dexter Pittman a couple weeks ago in practice that helped him get past one of the last remaining mental hurdles. All the uncertainty surrounding Rose and his game last season was pushed aside on this night with optimism for the future.
After missing almost a year and a half, even Rose was surprised he didn't get as tired on the floor.
"I was able to push the ball the way that I wanted to," Rose said. "Put pressure on the defense, and it kind of surprised me. I didn't get winded the whole time I was out there, so I guess I'm steadily building it along the way."
With Rose in the fold, the Bulls have the ability to dream big again. Nothing seems out of reach with him running the show and Thibodeau calling the shots. For now, the Bulls just want to savor the flavor on a night that was a long time in the making.
"I'm happy for him," Bulls forward Luol Deng said. "I'm happy to see him back at it. He went through a lot, and he's worked really hard. It's going to be a long year, but as hard as he's worked,I think it's going to be a great one."